The Joy of Performing with Chineke! and Why Conducting is a Bit Like Beekeeping

Kellen Gray will conduct Chineke! at this year's Harrogate Music Festival

Kellen Gray is an American-born conductor now based in Scotland. He is Assistant Conductor of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Associate Conductor of the Charleston Symphony, in the US. He is conducting Chineke! Orchestra when the pioneering ensemble opens Harrogate’s summer season. He discusses the art of conducting:

What’s it like performing with Chineke?

This will be the third time I’ve worked with them and it’s a really collaborative experience where everyone is learning from each other. There are players from all over the world so in a lot of ways it has a festival orchestra feel. It’s like a family reunion too, because many of the faces you see in Chineke! are faces you’ve seen in other orchestras from around the globe.

You started conducting in 2014. Can you tell us a little about the role of a conductor and why they’re important for an orchestra?

I like to compare a conductor to a beekeeper, because you have an orchestra, or a beehive, that’s this super organism where every member has a different role and it’s really the job of the beekeeper, or conductor, to make their job a little bit easier.

What is the art of conducting?

In a conversation, Robert Spano said, ‘good conducting is fixing problems with your hands, and great conducting is preventing them from happening.’ I think the best qualities are patience and a real understanding of how an orchestra works, because in many ways it’s an instrument, but it’s an instrument of people. So for me a conductor is a conduit through which things happen. When you’re studying conducting you need to master an instrument first. You need to understand the discipline it takes to put a piece together and it helps to have been in an orchestra so that you know how it functions. You also need the skills to lead and inspire musicians. It’s not just waving your hands to look like what the music sounds like, it’s moving your hands in a way that moves along the mechanism that makes the music sound like it does. There’s a non-verbal language that needs to be developed.

Who are some of the great conductors in your opinion?

That’s a tough question because I’ve never really modelled my conducting after anyone, but there are certainly conductors I have in my ear when I listen to their music. So I’ve always admired George Szell’s recordings; Neeme Järvi, who has a great reputation at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Claudio Abbado, I loved his approach to music making, and the same with Gustavo Dudamel.

Tell us a bit about your own musical story growing up in the US.

I learned music through folk music by rote, in church and the local community. In South Carolina we have communities of people known as Gullah, direct descendants of people brought over from West Africa to be slaves in the United States, and many of those musical traditions have been preserved. I started playing violin at school and in high school and I decided I wanted to be a musician rather than a biologist.

What is it about conducting that you love?

There’s obviously the music. But it’s the people who really make it all happen. When I’m in a rehearsal as a conductor and I get to see everyone sharing these moments, that’s what makes the dozens and dozens of hours a week of studying all worth it.

How important is it to champion black composers and musicians?

It’s important to remember when we’re exploring this that we do it because the music is wonderful. When you look at a composer like Florence Price, she was well known in her day. She was the first woman of colour to have a symphony played by a major orchestra, which was quite a feat in the earlier part of the 20th century when you think of all the challenges at that time. And for a composer like William Dawson to have one of the most played symphonies of the first half of the 20th century and then for it to become unknown and have to be rediscovered, very intentional things have to happen. We have to continue to engage to find more works by composers that are lost.

How important are orchestras like Chineke! in promoting diversity?

If we’re only doing things from the past then we’re just a museum, when really we ought to be incubators through art. That means supporting living composers and musicians, and just by looking at our orchestras it’s obvious there’s a lack of diversity, but there’s no lack of talent. So there’s obviously an issue there and orchestras like Chineke! really prove the point that there is no lack of talent when it comes to the diversity we have on this earth. It’s just a matter of how we create the pipelines so the issues that prevent people from being in those orchestras no longer exist.

What are you looking forward to most about coming to Harrogate?

I hear Harrogate is a beautiful place so I’m really looking forward to being part of the festival because it’s a wonderful programme that we’re doing together – particularly Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony because that’s my favourite symphony of his.

Grand Opening Concert: Chineke! Orchestra will perform at  Harrogate’s Royal Hall on Thursday 29 June at 7.30pm. Book online here or call the box office on 01423 562 303.

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